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Never Too Nappy

by Michelle H. Martin

herron_nappy hair“Brenda, you sure do got some nappy hair on your head, don’t you?” So begins Uncle Mordecai’s narrative in Carolivia Herron and Joe Cepeda’s controversial picture book, Nappy Hair (Knopf, 1997). All of the relatives have gathered around for a summer picnic, and as Uncle Mordecai tells the story of how Brenda’s unbelievable head of hair came to be, all of the relatives join in, in the call-and-response style of the traditional African-American church.

It ain’t easy to come by that kind of hair.
No it ain’t.
You just can’t blame Africa. It’s willful.
That’s what it is.

The rhythm of the story carries the reader back in history and up to heaven, where God decides that he “wanted hisself some nappy hair upon the face of the earth.” Against the protestations of all the angels (who have deep-chocolate-brown skin like Brenda and Uncle Mordecai and who all look suspiciously like Brenda’s relatives at the picnic), God makes Brenda’s hair “the nappiest hair in the world” and declares, “Ain’t going to be nothing they come up with going to straighten this chile’s hair.” God chooses to send Brenda’s ancestors to Earth by way of Africa, and Uncle Mordecai relates how they came to America as slaves: “I say they sold your momma for a buffalo….And your daddy, they sold him for one thin dime.”

Uncle Mordecai then tells of Brenda-in-heaven stomping and kicking and dancing around all of the “wimp hair” because she “didn’t want it.” When it comes time for Brenda to be born, God has a hand in that too. As the relatives look on in awe and amazement at this “cute little brown baby girl,” God  congratulates himself: “Well done….I got me one….One nap of her hair is the only perfect circle in nature.” And on the last page of the book, as we see Brenda, in her green, white, and yellow dress and high-top sneakers, her arms and legs outstretched, her smiling mouth open, and her hair in a huge, tangled mass on top of her head, God announces, “And she’s got the nappiest hair in the world.” The relatives put in the final amen with: “Ain’t it the truth.”

Let’s back up. Any reader unfamiliar with the term nappy will have been lost from the title page of this lively picture book. What, exactly, is nappy? Generally used only by and about people of African descent, this term describes the texture of most unprocessed Afro hair. Think 1960s Afro. The word curly won’t do, because Shirley Temple’s hair is that. Kinky isn’t quite the right word either, since tangled up Anglo hair can be described in this way. Typically a negative term, nappy connotes unmanageability — hair that is too dense to comb with ease. Because hair-straightening chemicals have been widely available to African Americans since the nineteenth century, being called nappy headed (or peasy headed — a term derived from peas) often suggests that the nappy-headed person is too poor, too careless, too unkempt, or too old-fashioned to “do something with that nappy hair.”

This explanation might begin to clarify why Herron’s humorous children’s picture book has recently been the cause of the harassment, censoring, and transfer of a first-year third-grade teacher; the focus of newspaper and magazine articles, television talk shows and news programs; and the reason for Knopf’s subsequent sale of over fifty thousand copies of the book in November 1998. In an effort to incorporate picture books into her classroom that would reflect the ethnicities of her students, twenty-seven-year-old Ruth Sherman of Brooklyn, New York, decided to read Nappy Hair to her all African-American and Hispanic class of third graders. They loved it so much that they asked Sherman for photocopies of pages of the book to take home. She obliged. When the parents of some of these children saw these decontextualized black-and-white pages several months later, they organized a protest in the neighborhood and called the school, threatening Sherman because they felt that the book depicted derogatory images of African Americans. These black parents further argued for the inappropriateness of discussing a term like nappy in mixed-race company. That word belongs in the African-American community, they argued, and it should stay there. As in many censorship cases, most of the parents who complained had not read the book and had therefore not seen the illustrations in context. And ironically, only one of the fifty parents who protested actually had a child in Sherman’s class. After reading the book, many of the parents had fewer objections. By that time, however, Sherman was so shaken by the confrontation with the hostile parents that she decided to leave the district, resigning and leaving  without even saying good-bye to her students. The parents’ threats made her fear for her safety.

tarpley_i love my hairThe New York Times Book Review, among others, gave the book rave reviews, and it was also well received by educators. What, then, do those critics and the rest of us who like the book see of value in it? Like many picture books focusing on African-American hair, such as Camille Yarbrough and Carole Byard’s Cornrows (1979), Alexis De Veaux and Cheryl Hanna’s An Enchanted Hair Tale (1987), and Natasha Anastasia Tarpley and E. B. Lewis’s I Love My Hair! (1997), Herron’s book, in the end, affirms that natural, unprocessed Afro hair is wonderful just as it is. Fostering self-love in the children who read these texts, these picture books do not suggest that children should change their hair in any way. Most of them, in fact, illustrate how versatile Afro hair is if left natural. This is a significant fact, because neither I nor my eleven-year-old niece could think of a single African-American girl from my childhood or hers who entered into puberty wearing her hair natural. I have worn my own hair natural since 1986, my third year of college, when I lived in Southwest England, where no one seemed to know what to do with Afro hair, but I could not have endured high school wearing my hair this way. My classmates would have ostracized me daily until I “did something” with my nappy hair. Hence, in some ways Nappy Hair and picture books like it are way ahead of African-American popular culture in that they resist conforming to white standards of beauty and affirm the beauty, versatility, and historical significance of natural Afro hair.

Like most worthy picture books, Nappy Hair features an important marriage between text and illustration; it would be quite a different book without Cepeda’s contribution. The call-and-response style of the narrative would be less effective without the visual affirmation that Brenda’s family is actively participating in Uncle Mordecai’s oral tale. The presence of this large extended family, all enjoying an outdoor picnic on a warm summer’s day, emphasizes the theme of unity — a theme that Uncle Mordecai advances further by validating Brenda’s beauty and intellect in the presence of her entire extended family. While Cepeda’s choice of more or less uniformly dark skin tones for the characters in the book could come under attack for its implication that all black folks look alike, I feel that this artistic choice also contributes to the theme of acceptance. It is true that African-American skin comes in all shades. But since Brenda’s relatives all have dark skin like Brenda and since none of them — not even the women — have processed hair, whatever they say of Brenda also applies to them. Because the family members look so much like Brenda, they speak to her not from a position of superiority but from one of equality. In the end, then, the validation for Brenda’s nappy hair and brown skin is an affirmation for the family members as well. God sees them as just as beautiful and just as valuable as Brenda.

Cepeda also succeeds in accentuating the humor that Herron incorporates into the text. For instance, when the angels go up to heaven to try to talk God out of giving Brenda this nappy head of hair, the young woman holding Brenda (her sister/angel) has wrapped her up in a pink blanket so well that nothing but a shock of her nappy hair sticks out. Behind this character, a little boy, one of Brenda’s male relatives, is pointing at this shock of hair and giggling. In another illustration, Brenda runs away, laughing joyously, while her relatives hail after her with hair spray, combs, and brushes. Both literally and figuratively, Brenda has escaped them.

Even more than the illustrations, the colors, the humor, or the call-and-response dialogue in the book, I appreciate Nappy Hair for the message of resistance that it offers. That message is this: when Africans were forcefully removed from their homeland and brought to the United States to be slaves, they were stripped of family, language, religion, music, art, and, most of all, their freedom. The most important message that Uncle Mordecai conveys about Brenda’s hair is that regardless of what was taken from African Americans, this vestige of Africa, this hair — evidenced through the unruly ‘fro of a mere child — endures. Brenda’s “naps” cannot be combed out, brushed out, or controlled with Madame C. J. Walker’s invention, the hot straightening comb. It cannot be “jerry curled” or “relaxed.” It cannot be moussed or gelled into submission. It just is, and according to Uncle Mordecai and God both, it is beautiful and perfect.

Some academicians of children’s literature object to Herron and Cepeda’s humorous portrayal of a feature for which many African-American children and even adults have long suffered ridicule. These critics feel that Herron and Cepeda have irresponsibly given Anglos linguistic ammunition with which to criticize blacks by providing terminology that they would not have otherwise known. I acknowledge this negative possibility. Because of the positivity with which the subject is presented, however, I see Nappy Hair as a text of reclamation: it affirms what has for too long had little affirmation in society, in popular culture, or in literature.

From the time I was about eight until I was sixteen, I went to Congaree Girl Scout Camp in Lexington, South Carolina, every summer. I have vivid memories from nearly every summer of sitting on my squeaky cot in my platform tent, oiling (or “greasing,” as we often say) my scalp, and trying to explain to my white tent mates why putting oil on my scalp wasn’t “gross.” “You see,” I would explain, “white people’s scalps produce oil; black people’s scalps don’t. You have to wash your hair every day to keep the oil out of it; I put oil in my hair to keep it healthy.” After this explanation, several other questions, and some oohing-and-ahhing, we could move past this discussion. But it always amazed me that I knew all kinds of things about white girls’ hair because their commercials were plastered all over my TV screen daily, while the only time that they had the opportunity to learn about my hair was sitting on a cot at Girl Scout Camp or watching the Soul Train commercials on Saturday afternoons. (And even those wouldn’t help if you didn’t know what Afro Sheen and Ambi Skin Creme were for.)

rooks_hair raisingHence, it doesn’t surprise me that some African Americans have been up in arms about this book. Those of us who have never lived closely with people of different ethnicities have never had to explain things like why we put grease in our hair and what a relaxer is, and many African Americans feel that this information is “our business.” I applaud Herron and Cepeda, however, for doing in children’s literature what critics, including bell hooks, author of the 1988 Z Magazine article “Straightening Our Hair,” and Noliwe M. Rooks, author of Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African-American Women (1996), have done in academia: opening up interracial dialogue about a topic that has been almost exclusively intraracial until recently.

Nappy Hair can help to foster open discussions about ethnic topics that people don’t usually mention outside of their own families and communities. Carolivia Herron and Ruth Sherman are now teaming up to write a study guide for Nappy Hair that should help educators to do just that. In the meantime, those who are brave enough to use the book, prepared enough to read it well, and sensitive enough to discuss it with young readers in ways that will honor African-American culture will likely find that the book comes with its own rewards.

Michelle H. Martin is currently assistant professor of English at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, but will be joining the Clemson University faculty this fall. She teaches children’s, young adult, and African-American literature.

From the May/June 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

To commemorate Black History Month, we are highlighting a series of articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about African American authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field — one a day through the month of February, with a roundup on Fridays. Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth17 and look for #HBBlackHistoryMonth17 on Facebook.com/TheHornBook and @HornBook. You can find more resources about social justice and activism at our Talking About Race and Making a Difference resource pages.

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